Book Review: The Things I Heard About You

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This post is part of the Found Poetry Review’s Book Review series. Questions or comments can be directed to the author, Douglas Luman.


The Things I Heard

The Things I Heard About You
Alex Leslie
Nightwood Editions
2014
88 pp.

Intimacy between the speaker and the spoken to, while not a first-order feature of every poem or poet, is one of the innate elements of the art of poetry. After all, the notion of the speaker—an entity addressing a person or object, vacated or present, or a group of people or objects—is a given by merely calling the poem an “utterance,” thereby requiring a source for said utterance. This is not to mean that every poem or poet is necessarily close to the reader; certainly there are many poets who write speakers that establish tone and voice through an intended ignorance of the relationship. However, the reader/speaker relationship is foregrounded in Alex Leslie’s The Things I Heard About You in several interesting and immediate ways. While only looking so far as the title, immediately the collection reaches out to the reader as if Leslie’s speakers will have heard about this “you”—the reader, or perhaps someone close to the reader. In everyday usage, the phrase “I’ve heard about you” carries with it both a connotation and social custom. Often we mean this to tell our intended audience that we are aware of them as a person, that they have cachet. Or, sometimes, we mean it to emphasize the position of notoriety held by someone we are meeting for the first time. While not an exhaustive listing of the many applications of the tactic, suffice it to say that such illocutionary (utterances whose force or implied direction indicates a speaker’s intention) moves are one of the characteristics that sets the intimacy of The Things I Heard About You apart.

Being a phrase that communicates a certain level of familiarity, Leslie’s presupposed relationship with reader takes a couple of forms. One of the first things to notice is each poem’s similar structure and the development (or, more appropriately, reduction) of the speaker’s information. Each piece is a dynamic self-erasure that presents the reader with the full text of a given poem with the implicit instruction from the poet to make it “smaller,” to continually reduce the utterance to its essence. This heightens the closeness of speaker and reader in the poems’ constant attempt to cut to essential information—to strip away all of the extraneous social custom of utterance. Presented as prose poems, the initial information is dense and rich, but seeing the speaker’s steps (much like “showing work” on a math problem) guides the reader toward what is essential to the speaker through the various reductions. For example, from what is perhaps the longest physical block of text (the first poem “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” in which Leslie samples parts of the Dylan song of the same name), the just over one-page span is reduced, like all of the poems, three times before it settles on

After: appear grown. Watch the ocean.

Even though the poem, in the speaker’s second attempt at self-erasure, contains some wonderful phrasing such as “[p]oem too small, plan the rope” and “[l]yric becomes ingrown” (themselves intimate lyrical moments), there is still room for the speaker to break them down even further.

In fact, in many of these poems, the revision/erasure that is done reaches back to the original text for expressions abandoned in intermediate iterations in order to find the most essential concepts. Leslie’s choice to include the in-between steps ensures that readers will never miss out on some of the most wonderful constructions possible from the rich texts that are given as starting points. But, to the point of intimacy in the poems that comprise The Things I Heart About You, being able to see the speaker’s faults, failures, and attempts to crystallize their position on what they choose to communicate allows the “mistaken,” and the inexact, to remain visible. Again, to use the term “faults,” itself an inexact term for Leslie’s project, is to comment on the intimacy of the relationship directly; the level of “polish” that is assumed in social interaction (especially the most intimate kinds) is often heightened.

Miscues and false starts seem undesirable, but it is these idiosyncrasies  that make any relationship unique.

Leslie’s poems in the collection also achieve closeness in a kind of direct address that has presented difficulty to many poets. Take, for example, the opening to “Archery for Beginners” in which the poem begins with a moment of dramatic positioning: “Behind you the sky opened a hole and a kite sailed through” or that of “Alert Bay to Port McNeill,” which begins by invoking “[t]he time we were the only vehicle on the ferry, coastal hole-in-one.” In both instances, the speaker positions themselves in different, but equally immediate ways; in the former, it is through calling attention to the relationship of physical space which both speaker and addressed occupied the same physical space, the speaker highlighting a fact about the scene of which, perhaps, even the addressed “you” of the poem was not even aware—this filling in of information implying a shared intimate knowledge that the speaker wishes to communicate. In the former example, the speaker recalls one specific time that implies we as readers should not only know precisely the instance that the speaker is referring to, but also have some perspective on being a “coastal hole-in one.” After all, if “we were the only vehicle on the ferry,” there was a moment shared that is even closer and more private, that of being the only ones to witness it.

After a collection of “close” poems, Leslie’s final move in the concluding poem, “Messenger,” reestablishes the distance between reader and speaker in a way that is similar to the closeness of a familiar conversation. Having started The Things I Heard About You with an address to an absent you (“After you died…”) the closing two reductions push the reader gently away, calling to attention the distance by writing, “I, not here, write” and the concluding piece “Otherwise, otherwise.” But, perhaps the nod is merely illocutionary in itself—in clarifying this section through self-erasure, the original message seems to become intentionally cryptic, abandoning the more hopeful notion that ends the first prose block, wishing the addressed to “[s]tay found,”  as if to give a signal to them to remain as they are, to inhabit the best qualities of themselves that make them notable or notorious, closing the loop created by the implication of the title and the various wishes for and achievements of closeness in The Things I Heart About You.

The form of the book, the feeling and space that it inhabits, is reminiscent of Kaia Sand’s Remember to Wave, though the subject matter and arrangement of the books are as different as they are alike. The immediate ability draw the reader in is palpable, and does not let go fully, even if the final speaker of the book attempts to disengage. The potential offered by such a use of self-erasure certainly demonstrates that the space occupied by the second hand, one often vacated or ill-attended by poetry, can be a powerful place in which to meet a reader and establish relationships that, even if they aren’t exactly us, offer the possibility of seeing ourselves in them.

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